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HE SEN: Projections of Women or Society?

As an art historian looking at the works of He Sen, I have been drawn in by the polished technique, sophisticated perspective, and sharp sensitivity to color, not to mention the aspect of sensuality.

Untitled 2000 Oil on Canvas 40 x 45 cm
Oil on Canvas
40 x 45 cm

The Women’s Portraits series contains some of the strongest work I have seen out of this generation of artists. He Sen’s talent for creating a work is trained and matured, and his ability to give the viewer a fresh impression of life in contemporary China is astounding. His technique of beginning work by taking a photograph then painting from a projected image has enabled him to include realistic perspective, light, and life that imagination might forget, thereby granting his work in oils a breath of reality yet to be discovered by some. His interest in creating a scene, recording it, and preserving it forever in oils was apparent upon his graduation from art school in 1989. He Sen’s works of the early 1990s, also realistic portraits, are comparatively darker and masculine. The portraits of friends contain heavy, rich colors and non-descript backgrounds, projecting a feeling of restlessness that many young people must have been feeling at the time. By the mid-90s, He Sen had adapted his style, granting a more abstract feel to the works by painting the figures with a sculptural, concrete effect, and removing their eyes. Late 1998 marked the beginning of the series Women’s Portraits, where He Sen has exacted his technique and calmed the restlessness with soft, sensual images of women. His works from 2000 are even more detailed, precise, and meticulous than the earlier ones from this series. He continues to explore contemporary society and comment through his figurative works on the changing roles of individuals.

The Girl Covering Her Face 1999 Oil on Canvas 45 x 40 cm

As a woman looking at the works of He Sen I have found myself debating with the theme and portrayal of women. Their body positions or poses are abject, sexist, and at times humiliating. Although the works are He Sen’s personal visions, the voyeuristic aspect, rendering these women powerless, is a detail hard to avoid. The dominance of the male gaze is so striking in these works that I questioned what type of man would be painting them, and more specifically, what was his attitude toward women? My growing uncomfortableness was cast aside once I met He Sen and was able to talk with him in-depth about this series.

He Sen is a man quite the contrary to what I was forming in my head. He is reserved, delicate, a bit shy, and extremely articulate on contemporary topics relating to China’s development. In actuality, his works are taking a very critical look at society and make a serious point about the effect it has on everyday lives. It is relatively easy to look at this series and stereotype the women he is painting; superficial, artificial, and possibly numb to reality, as they absently gaze at themselves in the mirror applying makeup, or recline on the sofa or bed talking on the phone as if they do not have a care in the world. Surprisingly, He Sen agrees with the stereotyping. He absolutely wants these women to appear as if they are shallow with a hollow spirit, that they are aimless with nothing to do, that they are just a beautiful shell. We witness these women in private moments concerned only with themselves and their world. He Sen takes even more away from these women as he restricts their ability to see. The eyes of the women are deleted because he believes this type of woman cannot see reality clearly. “The women in my paintings have no eyes because I believe that there is a large distance between people causing them not to see things clearly. They are confused, detached, and turn a blind eye to reality.” He Sen’s works are honest in their presentation. His observations are critical as he exposes the truth of a modernizing society.

Women's Portraits Series 2000 Oil on Canvas 40 x 45 cm
Women’s Portraits Series
Oil on Canvas
40 x 45 cm

“Contemporary society has never been better, it is cleaner and prettier than before, but we do not know its content…It is in a way very artificial, as we can only see what is on the surface, not what is on the inside. Just like the women in my works, on the outside they are beautiful, but they are hollow on the inside.” The women in He Sen’s works might refer to the powerlessness people have over their own lives. He depicts the situation of reality in context to the changing roles people are experiencing.

The selection of color serves to heighten the expression of criticism. The series is done in either black and white or purples. He Sen says he selects varying shades of black, gray, and white for their simplicity, but also apparent is the ideology of an ambiguous, undefined environment, delineated by the “gray area” people find themselves in, expressing a complex feeling associated with present-day society. “People do not know what to do, they feel confused and perplexed by our new society.” The second half of the series is painted in purples and pinks, which He Sen nonchalantly says are women’s colors, thus serving to accentuate the femininity of the works.

He Sen has always been a solid artist, and the Women’s Portraits series is elegant in its style as well as its comment. It is an accurate reflection on a changing society that may look solid and progressive, but many people are discovering a reality with no clear definitions. “The models in my works feel the works are very real, including the technique, mood, and poses, but at the same time, they are frightened by the works, as they are too realistic. The women see things in the pictures that they cannot face in reality.”

“In the past, people had a belief or faith, within today’s society, people do not.” By portraying young women’s lives in such a manner, He Sen is using them as representations of a society where people feel a loss of spirituality and have feelings of uncertainty, as he suggests with accomplished skill.

Nicky Combs
Beijing, June 2000

Thanks to Red Gate Gallery – Beijing
topics: he sen, contemporary Chinese artist, art, contemporary Chinese art, Chinese painter

Man and toy dog Oil on canvas 100×150 cm 2001
Girl and toy dog Oil on canvas 100×150 cm 2001

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